By EMILY COOK
In 2008 Prime Minister Stephen Harper formally apologized to aboriginal Canadians for the forced assimilation they were subjected to in residential schools for over a century.
But no similar apology has ever been issued for the mass adoption of aboriginal children in the 1960s, the trend that later became known as the “Sixties Scoop.”
Approximately 11,000 aboriginal children were adopted between 1960 and 1996, when the last residential school closed, with 70 per cent sent to live in non-aboriginal homes. That resulted in confused identity and a loss of culture, says the Aboriginal Advisor’s report on the status of Aboriginal child welfare in Ontario.
Today, there are more aboriginal children in out-of-home care than there had been in residential schools at their height, creating what has been called the “Millennium Scoop.”
Though parallel in name, these two events are separated by a promise of change that exists now which couldn’t have been imagined in the 1960s.
John Beaucage, aboriginal advisor to Canada, termed this period “the Millennium Scoop” in his report of Canada’s child welfare system. Beaucage says he witnessed a continuing cycle of issues like poverty and substance abuse that is perpetuating the overrepresentation of aboriginal children in care.
“It’s like an echo from the sixties,” says Beaucage.
Canada is facing more directly these multi-generational problems in aboriginal families, particularly on reserve communities.
Nico Trocmé, director of a research center at McGill University which has investigated child welfare in Canada, says many aboriginal children in care are coming from parents who themselves had been “children of the state,” and never learned how to parent.
Because of this cycle, the 2007 UNICEF report called for governmental policy change towards the removal of aboriginal children to create more culturally-based programs.
Until this report, the Ministry of Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada (AANDC) had been funding the removal of children from homes, but not any preventative measures to support families and make child removal a final option.
“The types of home-based services that First Nations communities are looking for are no different from what is available for non-aboriginal children everywhere else in the country,” says Trocmé.
The Department of Aboriginal Affairs implemented a new approach in 2007 that focused on prevention. It extended funding to allow next-of-kin to care for children in the community. The goal of this new approach is to provide services that compare reasonably with provincial programs, says the AANDC website.
There is more desire to change the situation in Canada today than there was in the 1960s, yet the number of Aboriginal children in care continues to go up, says Trocmé.
In 2006, an amendment to to the Child and Family Services Act created a requirement that aboriginal communities be notified when a child is being apprehended, and that a search for kin be done before children are removed into state care.
But issues in aboriginal communities are running deeper than policies are reaching. Systemic poverty, poor housing, and a high percentage of substance abuse are working against any improvements in the system.
Cindy Blackstock, executive director of First Nations Child and Family Caring Society of Canada (FNCFCS), says these deeper issues could be dealt with, if services and funds were available.
“If you are that addicted parent and you do want to do something about it, the chances of you actually having access to treatment are very low,” says Blackstock.
Child welfare on reserves is under provincial jurisdiction, but funded by the federal government. Even with improvements in aboriginal and services cooperation provincially, families won’t be able to get adequate services without proper federal funding.
The Caring Society, led by Blackstock, filed a human rights complaint in 2007 against the government of Canada. They claimed the government was underfunding child welfare off reserves by 22 per cent per child. Hearings for this case will begin in February.
Despite other evidence of political will to improve aboriginal child welfare, Amnesty International’s Craig Benjamin says this case portrays a lack of change in the discriminatory policies of the government.
“This is the continuation of the old relationship based on colonialism, based on oppression, based on violation of basic human rights and the denial of equality,” says Benjamin, who campaigns for the human rights of indigenous people in Canada.
Benjamin says the problem facing the Canadian government now is to provide the adequate funds to counter years of racial discrimination on reserves.
The Ministry of Aboriginal Affairs shows more funds are needed to get services on reserve to the same level as other areas in the provinces. The report states that funding of child welfare has increased from $238 million in 1998-1999 to $580 million in 2010-2011, but still don’t cover the needs on reserve.
Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond, representative for children and youth in B.C., says that child welfare workers on reserves are beginning to improve support for families before children are removed, but are struggling with underfunding.
“The investment in programs to support cultural and community attachment for the generations removed by child welfare are very limited yet positive,” says Turpel-Lafond.
In some provinces, improvements are being made through programs that encourage aboriginal and government cooperation, with methods that provide support for caregivers so children can stay in their homes.
Karen Douglas, social worker at the Children’s Aid Society of Ottawa (CASOTT), explains how her branch’s efforts to improve programs has had a positive impact in the Ottawa area.
“As much as possible, we’re trying to follow an anti-oppressive practice by allowing people to be in control of making decisions about their families and their lives,” says Douglas.
Their work focuses on recognizing and dealing with structural inequalities that exist in the social work system. They hope this knowledge can then be used to provide specialized services to aboriginal families.
Progress is slow, but unlike the purposeful assimilation of aboriginals during the 1960s, advocates for the rights of Aboriginal children hope the Millennium Scoop may be just the push needed to create lasting change.